Dance Umbrella is an annual international contemporary dance festival which takes place in October this year. Freddie Opoku-Addaie became Artistic Director back in 2021 and is the first black person out of only four people to hold this position in 45 years. Freddie has turned the programming on its head, championing emerging and diverse talents as an aim to widen the canon of dance and platform the next wave of choreographers. We took the opportunity to speak to Freddie Opoku-Addaie to tell us more about his work and this exciting festival.
Q) Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you became involved in dance?
I was born in East London, of Ghanian heritage and was partly raised in Ghana Kumasi from the ages of 4-10 before returning to East London. At secondary school, I had a brilliant drama teacher who made the performing arts more relatable and sparked my initial interest. I eventually decided to study performing arts at Newham Sixth Form College, where I also had incredible teachers. The college partnered on projects with East London Dance, where I had the opportunity to work with a wide variety of National and International based choreographers. I then trained at London Contemporary Dance School at The Place, before coming an apprentice for Company Wayne McGregor. Subsequently, I worked as a freelance performer with Candoco Dance Company, the late Rashpal Singh Bansal, Athina Vahlia, Clod Ensemble, Jorge Crecis and Hetain Patel amongst others. My Work has been commissioned by the Barbican Centre, Southbank Centre and to date, I'm the only twice Place Prize Finalist choreographer/performer.
Q) What does your job as Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Dance Umbrella involve?
My role in a nutshell involves delivering captivating artistic content with the utmost creative and strategic means with our Executive Director to make this happen with the DU team. I also think my role is to widen the discourse of artists and to support those whose choreographic lens have not been in the conversation before and therefore, to widen the canon of dance. At the heart of DU, we are introducing new artists and motioning on the same level playing field under the umbrella of dance choreography.
Q) Dance Umbrella is now in its 45th year. What is it about DU that continues to captivate audiences in London and beyond?
We're really looking to platform artists who are not on the radar of the establishment and audiences. Dance Umbrella is about celebrating and championing those who shift the canon of dance choreography. We bring an inquisitive approach to who else should be in the conversation. We’re also working more widely across London than ever before. We're not just in zones one and two of the city. We extend to outer London boroughs too, with an all year round creative learning programme. As a hybrid festival now, we have a global reach and international outlook.
Q) How would you say the festival is evolving under your artistic directorship?
One definite aim is for dance, in its widest sense, to be represented. We’re shifting the movement canon beyond the Western canon and giving space and acknowledgement to a variety of styles. Within the establishment, we now see many artists drawing on movement styles outside of the Western movement canon, from capoeira and voguing to hip hop styles and traditional folk dances, yet they don’t necessarily give a nod to its origins. It’s important to acknowledge these styles in the same way we acknowledge the influence of the classical form on contemporary dance. We are opening space to that discourse while also introducing artists and working with partner venues knowing that some of these will become the establishment staple in the future.
Q) What is your approach to making programming choices?
My programming choices come from informed instincts. I have a very diverse background and appreciation of things that I've seen which informs my choices. I also have an understanding of where the nuances are within the distinct forms. Every year, the programming will change as we try to get a balance over the years and engage with the shifting dialogue. It’s also a constant conversation with our venue partners, and we try to give the artist an upscaling opportunity too. We are making an effort to shift the dialogue and widen the conversation around who the next wave of leaders are. It's not just about having one black voice, or one global majority voice, or one disabled artist. There are many voices and there are always nuances, so it's important to have that parity across the breadth of in-person, online and industry facing programming. This also informs the decision in the venue presenting partners we collaborate with.
Q) Can you give us a whistle stop tour through the programme?
This year we open with the Change Tempo model, which we had at Brixton House last year. We have a really wonderful artist, SU PinWen, with an interesting piece called Girls Notes which questions the stereotypes of non-conforming identities. Then the other part of the Change Tempo double is Alexandre Fandard’s Comme un symbole, which is a really beautiful piece that once again plays with how people are perceived and challenges representations. Next we’ve got London Battle at Somerset House, curated by choreographer Jade Hackett. London Battle is an all-day event which sees a stellar gathering of dancers based from the four corners of London, as they go head-to-head across a diverse range of styles, and the crowd decides who wins. Then we’ve got MOS by Ioanna Paraskevopoulou at the Barbican, which plays with films and uses everyday objects to evoke foley sound effects. It’s a beautiful piece of work that was one of the top picks from Aerowaves Dance Across Europe and we have its UK premier.
Next on the programme we have One Drop by award winning Cameroonian-Finnish artistic director and choreographer Sonya Lindfors at Battersea Arts Centre.The title of the work refers to two separate concepts - the one drop rule of the Race Separation Act, created in the United States in the early 1900s, according to which a single drop of “Black blood” made a person “Black” despite their appearance, and the style of drumming is prevalent in reggae music. This work interrogates the ghost of the western stage and the relationships to capitalism and modernity we’re all navigating everyday.
We've also got the mavericks that is BirdGang Ltd with Family (dys)Function at Stanley Arts, which is part of this year’s London Borough of Culture, This is Croydon. It's an intergenerational piece from the communities of Croydon that questions how technology plays or not in a relationship between different generations. Then we come to the South African pantsula company Via Katlehong with their exciting double bill Via Injabulo at Sadler’s Wells. Choreographer Marco da Silva Ferreira deconstructs the movement style of pantsula in førm inførms and Amala Dianor plays with the tradition, and engagement of the dance form in Emphakathini.
Q) Dance Umbrella's family friendly Orbital Touring Network is now it its 10th year - can you tell us about this year's show and why this touring model is important?
Emma Gladstone, previous Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Dance Umbrella, initiated the orbital tour with a purpose to develop young dance audiences, and to take the work to the audience. Once again, we’re not just across zones one and two, and we have continued to take work beyond central London. The Orbital piece this year is Skydiver by Xenia Aidonopoulou, a multi-sensory dance experience for families that will awaken all our imaginations. It has five dates across London, touring to Unicorn Theatre, Stanley Arts, The Place, Studio 3 Arts and Watermans Arts Centre. It’s important that we bring the visibility of international artists across London and have that parity of not only artists but venues too.
Q) Can you give us an overview of the Digital programme?
This is our third year presenting the Digital Pass which has enabled us to reach a wider national and international audience. For DU 2023, we have a few of the live artists also presenting digital work, such as Ioanna Paraskevopoulou and SU PinWen. We also have Trajal Harrell’s film O Medea, and he will additionally dissect his work, Dancer of the Year, for this year’s Choreographer’s Cut. The final film on this year’s programme is Vincenzo Lamagna & Danilo Moreli’s beautiful piece called KINGDOM. We also have Stopgap Dance Company presenting Dance Tapes, which are choreographic scores that completely enlighten our imagination of what choreography can look like by hearing it, so it’s accessible and audiences create the visuals themselves. Finally, we have Artist Encounters, a workshop for cultivating artistic practice, sharing knowledge and asking questions. We offer the digital content as pay-what-you-can, which is from as little as £5. It's great that we are able to offer such breadth of work at an affordable price in these challenging times, shifting the conversation of who gets to watch or invest in the artform across live and digital platforms. We’ll also announce a couple of other works as part of of Digital Pass in September before we go live on the 6th October - stay tuned online with us.
Q) What would you say to a first time attender about why this festival is unmissable?
It's a chance to connect with artists and be curious and experience an incredible breadth of work across venues in a global city and online. These are some of the most exciting artists at present and I'm pretty sure there's one artist in there that you wouldn't have heard of and a work that speaks to our multi shared sensibilities.
Q) Thank you so much for sharing all this insightful and exciting information with us. Is there anything else that you'd like to add?
DU and partners are still able to present and produce about 50% of events from scratch in these challenging times especially for independents makers .Dance Umbrella works with and champions the tenacity of independent freelance artists and creatives which pretty much makes up the festival. #DUFest23 - a global city’s festival.
Dance Umbrella Festival runs from the 6th October to the 31st October. For more information and tickets, you can follow the link here.
Written by Vicky Humphreys (@_adventuresintheatreland) | Photography by Pedro Sardinha, Nikolas Louka, Camilla Greenwell and Wei Wu-Wing.